(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat.)
The scariest song I’ve ever heard is by Harry Chapin.
Yes, that Harry Chapin–the one who did “Cat’s in the Cradle” and “Taxi” and “Circle” and so forth. (And no comments from the peanut gallery about “Cat’s in the Cradle” being scary enough, okay?) Harry Chapin was always a very, very big deal in my family. A fellow Long Islander, he was one of those musicians that both my rock-centric Dad and easy-listening show-tune-weaned Mom could agree upon. Moreover, he was always playing live shows at local Long Island venues, where my folks saw his surprisingly theatrical singer-songwriter stylings up close and personal many times. (They still sing the praises of his bass player’s stage presence.) In fact, they had tickets to the benefit concert in Eisenhower Park on route to which he died, at age 38, in a car accident on the LIE. Rare was the Sunday afternoon when Harry Chapin songs wouldn’t be playing on our stereo.
What motivated my mischievous Dad to play the song “Sniper,” from Chapin’s second album Sniper and Other Love Songs, on one such Sunday afternoon is a mystery to me. I guess he figured I’d get a kick out of how crazy it was. Indeed I did. But it’s more than crazy–it’s inventive, insightful, piercing, and, to me at least, unforgettable.
For starters, it really is about a sniper. It’s a vaguely fictionalized account of Charles Whitman’s August 1966 University of Texas clocktower rampage–an unusual topic for the man behind “Sunday Morning Sunshine.” But the earnestness with which Chapin imbued his folksy love songs serves this macabre subject well. Chapin is no more able to hide beind irony or ambiguity here than he is in his more romantic work, forcing the audience to come directly to terms with the horror of the sniper attack, and the tortured character of the sniper himself.
Over the course of the song’s 9 minutes and 55 seconds, Chapin and his dextrous backup band wind, segue, and careen from tempo to tempo, key to key, style to style. Here they’re conveying the quiet of the early morning campus, while the protagonist walks toward the clocktower. Here they’re mimicking the buzzing teletype and breaking-news noise of the special reports updating viewers and listeners on the shootings. Here they’re deploying simple, sparse staccato to simulate the slaying of yet another too-curious bystander. Here they’re using cello and chorus to depict the mournful, vengeful mother fixation of the title character. Here they’re building toward the climactic showdown between sniper and police, replete with gas-dropping helicopters and “final fusillade”s. And here they’re crescendoing to a “Day in the Life”-style nihilist’s triumph. A band trained for simplicity, their discipline serves them extraordinarily well, tempering excess and making every musical metaphor convincing.
Chapin’s vocals multitask in a similar fashion. After an introductory chant of the phrase “She said ‘not now’” (words whose significance will be made clear later on), Chapin begins singing as a third-person omniscient narrator, quietly setting the scene while peppering it with ominous foreshadowings: “It is an early Monday morning. The sun is becoming bright on the land,” he sings, firmly in his previously established singer-songwriter sunshine mode, before adding, “No one is watching as he comes a-walking; two bulky suitcases hang from his hand.” Later, the narrator begins taking on some of the sniper’s angry, mocking swagger: “So much to do,” he deadpans, “and so little time.”
When the music takes on its mock-(and mocking-)newscast tone, Chapin switches to a nasal vocal style redolent of bad radio reception or megaphone announcements, posing as several acquaintances interviewed about their now-infamous friend who respond with helpless we-didn’t-know platitudes like, “Always sorta sat there–he never seemed to change.” At other moments he adopts a matter-of-fact, tough guys doin’ a tough job delivery–”They set up an assault team. They asked for volunteers”–before raising his voice to mimick the rising panic of the city and its people–”in appropriately sober tones,” he says in anything but an appropriately sober tone, “they asked, ‘who can it be?‘”
But Chapin’s greatest achievement with “Sniper” is getting inside the labrynthine maze of self-pity, self-hatred, and self-aggrandizement that is its title character’s mind. Chapin frames the entire killing spree as a “conversation” the sniper has decided to have with “the city where no one can know him,” a conversation he initiated the only way he felt he could. “You won’t pay attention,” the sniper says, “but I’ll ask anyhow.” The question? “Am I?” The people of the city answer the sniper by dying at his hands. “The first words he spoke took the town by surprise: One got Mrs. Gibbons above her right eye,” Chapin informs us, stopping to fill in the gruesomely poetic details: “Reality poured from her face, staining the floor.” But even this sudden success in getting a response from the people he felt had ignored him is not enough to assuage the sniper’s misery, the source of which, of course, is rejection by Mother. At this point I feel I’m familiar enough with people in therapy, myself included, to know that this isn’t nearly as reductive a hypothesis for mental illness’s route cause as it’s made out to be. Chapin understood this, and in a lyrical triplet takes the sniper from abject infantile adoration to resentful murderous hatred, a journey one can assume the real-life sniper took himself, seeing as he killed his mother (and his wife) the night before the tower shootings.
It all builds up, needless to say, to the final moments, when police manage to reach the top of the tower and put an end to the sniper’s conversation with the world. But for the sniper himself, the point is moot: In killing him, the world has given him the answer he sought. “I was,” he thinks to himself in triumph as the bullets rip through him, “I am, and now, I will be.” As though just now waking up to this transcendent fact–the fact of his immortalization through the damage he has done, and through the legend he has become–the sniper repeats the last three words once more: “I will be.” The music soars and resounds and, like blood or gunsmoke, slowly flows away.
I thought about this song a lot around this time last year. The circumstances were different, of course: These new murders were mobile hit-and-runs rather than a massive attack. And they ended up being more different than we’d thought: A pair of killers, with Islamic terrorism mixed in as a motivation, rather than (or at least in addition to) the deranged loner with Oedipal rage. But put aside some of the specifics, and the tales told are nearly identical: of men so incapable of communicating their anger that they come to see murder as their only acceptable means of expression, of media that feed parasitically on death and those who produce it.
That listening to a song afforded me insight into and understanding of a human struggle makes it art. That that struggle involved an unblinking, unrepentant killer makes it horror.
Sean T. Collins flies so high when he’s stoned. He blogs at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat, where this post originally appeared.